Louise Bourgeois was once asked, “Do you see the art world as a men’s world?” and she answered, “Yes, it is a world where men and women try to satisfy men’s power.” Therefore, she noted the fact that women are not much represented and recognised in art history. We had to wait until the 1970s for this issue of under representation of women in art to be seriously raised by art historians. Linda Nochlin, for instance, raises a polemic question in a seminal article published in 1971 in ARTnews: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In this article, she reviewed the social structures and the institutional attitudes that influenced the art produced by women and their arthistorical status as well.
Nochlin’s article points out that in the 19th century and earlier, institutional barriers were strongly established to cut women off from essential training to become professional artists; they couldn’t study the nude, nor attend the Academy courses. They were only allowed to work on portraits and still life, where models were easily available. Thus they were not able to practice noble genres such as historical painting. It was implied that women could only be good enough for minor categories, which was obviously wrong. But this can explain the fact that, besides very rare exceptions (Marie Cassatt, Berthe Morisot or Judith Leyster), women artists were rarely bold or creative, because they were not trained to be so. Today’s art schools, everywhere, are more than half full of girls. It is no longer difficult for a woman to train to be an artist. Nevertheless, once past art school, all sorts of obstacles stand in the way of her further pursuit of a serious career. As a matter of fact, out of 169 artists who were invited to the exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture, organised by the MoMA in 1984, one could count only 13 women. More than 30 years later, we can reasonably ask ourselves if women artists are still underrepresented in art institutions all over the world, especially in the Arab world where particularism, religion, tradition and identity politics have inhibited the possibility of embarking on an in-depth and international scaling debate.
Nayla Tamraz interviews Etel Adnan, Lamia Joreige and Tagreed Darghouth, here’s her conversation with Etel Adnan.
Born in Lebanon in 1972, Lamia Joreige is a visual artist and filmmaker who lives and works in Beirut. She uses archival documents and fictitious elements to reflect on the relationship between individual stories and collective history. She explores the possibilities of representation of the Lebanese wars and their aftermath, and Beirut, a city at the center of her imagery. Her work is essentially on time, the recordings of its trace and its effects on us.
NAYLA TAMRAZ: We know that the fact that some of the best artists in every medium are women is unquestionable: good art has no sex. But in terms of art market, apart from some rare exceptions, do you think that today’s women artists get the prices men do, or that museums are ready to support young women artists as much as they support young men? Don’t you think that women artists generally have to be extraordinarily well-established before being bought for collections, or given major exhibitions?
LAMIA JOREIGE: Let’s be clear. I don’t think there is equality today, in the market or even in the visibility between women and men in the art world. The reasons for this are not always clear. I don’t want to go into speculation. I don’t think women have to be extraordinary well-established today before being bought for collections. You have some young women artists who are part of collections. But I do think, at least for an older generation of women, who were as good as their male peers, that they only reached recognition at a late stage of their lives and careers. I’m not talking just about the Arab world. We are witnessing today a sort of attempt by many institutions worldwide to render visible works by women artists that were done decades ago and that were not given the proper visibility at the time, for reasons that go beyond the art world. This inequality goes back thousands of years. For all the reasons that exist in all other fields, these women were not visible. And you see that many institutions are now trying to find, to uncover and unfold the works of women artists. So I wouldn’t say that today’s institutions do not include younger women, and you don’t have to wait until you are highly established because it has changed. You have some kind of change, a progress, but we are not there yet.
N.T: Are collectors, museums, curators and galleries up on things? And is this still happening while women begin to occupy prominent places in the art world as creative artists? Or when curators and dealers are women?
L.J: Collectors and curators are participating in this, for better and worse. Today, curators have reached such a prominent position. There is this sort of curator stardom that has risen since the ’80s. Curators have a very important role in the career of an artist, like the one art critics in the ’50s and ’60s used to have. I don’t like to use the word ‘career’ or even the word ‘profession,’ this is not how I see my work. But if you want to make a generalisation or if you want to talk about it as a field, like any other field, I think that obviously the role of curators and the role of major biennales and museums are prominent, and you can almost retrace their paths in an artist’s life. But it is very important to maintain the idea that you can also find your place in this world without following these paths.
So there is always this tension. In the end, you know it is very hard to make it without being part of these biennales and museums. This is not the reason why you do your art but there is always this tension. How am I going to make my work visible and share it with everyone if it is not in that public space? It is also a matter of visibility and publicity, and your work also exists when it is shared with the public.
I took a diversion to explain the reasons for an artist to want to be in such places, apart from the desire for recognition. The fact is that you can barely ‘make it’ today without these considerations. And so it depends on who’s there, but having a woman at the head of a biennale, or at the head of a museum, does not make her recognise other women, as we know. Unfortunately.
N.T: But the question is less if it is more difficult to be in the Arab world than abroad than if it is more difficult to be a female artist in the Arab world.
L.J: Yes, but not more than being a female artist abroad. I feel like in the younger generations of artists there are more female artists now, and they don’t have such differences between them and male artists.
N.T: So this is really a question of generation?
L.J: It could be. I mean, there is something that is shifting and progressing for the better, between the generation of women working in the ’60s, those who started working in the mid-’90s, and the current one. I don’t know about the situation abroad. I have friends who are women artists from my generation and who are living in France, Berlin, London, and I don’t think that by living abroad they have more visibility than us here.
N.T: Did it become easier for women when contemporary art came along? While it was coming off academic references, contemporary art opened up to sociology, philosophy and psychoanalysis, all of them disciplines often associated with Marxist thinking. Has “anti-painting” — in the form of photography, video, installation, and performance — gained popularity among women because “they were associated with feminist refusal of the patriarchal reign of the painted masterpiece”*? Do you think that these other media offered an independent territory for expression? Did these new ways of thinking of art beside the academic tradition give them the opportunity to get off the established male artists’ pattern? How has the art scene changed for women in the Arab world since 2000?
L.J: I am not sure I would agree with where this is coming from, when speaking of today’s situation. I don’t think of the use of photography and video installation as anti-painting. I studied painting and cinema and I don’t necessary see mediums as contradictory. I don’t see video or photography as anti-painting, I still see myself as a painter, although I don’t necessarily paint anymore. I’m speaking based on my personal experience. Many women continue to paint and revisit the genre while still criticising the omnipresence and the historical understanding that painting is really more of a man thing.
I was recently at the Rose Art Museum in Brandeis University, Massachusetts, watching Ana Mendieta’s work, Body Tracks. They are a feminist response to Yves-Klein. Of course, as body prints, they are performative but they nevertheless are drawings. Also Etel — she’s a painter and she’s a feminist.
I am not at ease with this statement. I think the shift (to the other media you mention) has to do with technological progress and with a certain democratisation and freedom in the ability of using images and making images. I personally needed to deal with issues related to the narration of the Lebanese wars and the question of history. I had to use a medium that could unfold through time. I often used a time-based media because I was
interested in the recording of speeches and testimonies. There was an urgency after the war, where I felt the need to confront myself to the notion of testimony, to the notion of the real and its relation to documentary and fiction and the narratives that could be created out of this. I felt it was impossible for me to do that through painting. This is very personal. I don’t think it had to do with being a woman versus a male.
N.T: In the Arab countries, the topic shows more problematic aspects: we live in a world where, broadly speaking, women are still oppressed. Some of them still die from mistreatment, they sometimes can’t initiate court cases and they can still be pushed into marriage. Do you think that the rising of the so-called “Arab Spring” has placed these issues on a more political scale? Consequently, has the art scene changed for women since 2011? And did activism through art — and more specifically women artists’ activism — contribute to put these issues into the sphere of politics?
L.J: The Arab Spring pulled us up; we were so proud to see that happening around us, compared to the disillusion of being in Lebanon where everything was stagnating. Then the bigger disillusion was the collapse of the Arab Spring in favour of regimes that were dictatorial or situations harsher or worse than the ones before.
I mean if we want to be positive, and not only on the issue of women’s rights and the improvement of women’s condition but on all issues related to civil rights, democracy and freedom of speech, if we believe that the Arab Spring completely collapsed into a failure but that still, people rose, people went in the streets, then maybe in decades we might see that something remained of that movement. That’s if we really want to have some kind of hope. It’s very hard for me to see things that way, because all I can see now is that this hope was crushed.
In Lebanon, you do have groups of women that are activists, and not necessarily artists, and I think they are doing amazing things to improve the condition of women. For instance, there is a strong campaign in Lebanon against a law that prevents a rapist from being prosecuted if he marries the woman he raped. Art is a political territory but it’s fine for me if these are civic movements or activist movements that have nothing to do with art. And I think that in Lebanon they are doing a great job, at least on the level of awareness, because the video they made on this issue was widely shared on social media, although I wasn’t here to see the installation that was done by an artist.
I think that anything can contribute to awareness and to a shift. Although on a personal level I support this kind of movement, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I am a militant through my art or that my art is militant.
I would say that almost every woman who, in her everyday life in Lebanon, is fighting the common understanding of what the woman’s role should be is a militant. Of course, not in the same way as the courageous activists who are taking the time to do these campaigns. But what I am saying is that there are certain steps that you take as a person in your everyday life here that are very different from when you are living in other places, where these kinds of rights are already acknowledged and where, for instance, you don’t have the same social pressure to get married and have kids as you would have in Lebanon.
If you are a woman of my age, and you live without being married and without kids, in a society where every two minutes someone is looking at you like you’re weird, you start to realise certain things, so for me there are also these minor details of everyday life. A shift can happen in a society, the shift is not going to happen only in changing the laws. The problem, actually, is that the laws often reflect the mentalities and ways of thinking that exist and are often carried by women themselves. So when you see women who are continuously perpetuating ideas that can be degrading on the role of women in society, I would say it requires all kinds of actions, minor actions and legal actions, for things to change.
N.T: Art history, as we all know, is eminently male and white. Today, however, as a consequence of postcolonial studies and globalisation perspectives, parallel art histories have emerged and we talk more than ever about “plural modernities.” The exhibition Elles that was organised by Centre Pompidou in 2009-2010 showed the decision to display only artworks made by the women artists of the collection. This exhibition was an attempt to show what a feminine and feminist rewriting of modernity in art can look like. Do you think that women from the Arab world are willing to talk about gender more openly now?
L.J: Most women I know, are very conscious of issue of gender, and of their role as female artists. One of the greatest artists, Mona Hatoum, had a very important role too. I’m thinking of her early performances. If you look at younger artists today, like Marwa Arsanios, she’s also dealing with issues of gender in her work. I would say that not all women include a militant dimension in the visible aspect of their work, but I would think that they are all very aware of their role as female artists.
N.T: Don’t you think that being labeled “artist from the Arab world” is as reductive as being labeled “woman artist?” Do you think that it is more relevant to put the debate on the representation of women artists in the art world in the frame of an intersectional feminism, including race and class conflicts as well?
L.J: It’s always the same questions with identity and politics. To go back to the post-colonial discourse now predominance is given to artists from other parts of the world, from our region, for instance, or let’s say from South America. But are you actually labelling these artists only through their identity of origin? This is often problematic. Sometimes we choose to be part of these shows and we regret it, sometimes we are happy because the show has an amazing articulation.
It is very hard. You can be critical, of course you are going to be labeled as a woman artist. Being labelled as a woman artist from the Arab world is also a problem. I am now part of a show that encompasses both these dangers.
But then again, you also have to advocate for more visibility. I would say it demands a lot of subtlety in the curatorial statement, in the articulation of the exhibition, in the understanding of the fact that you shouldn’t just label these works. But I’m torn, because it is something that can be reductive. Of course, I am a woman and I am Lebanese, but I am very happy when my work is shown beside the work of someone who is not from my region, and who I don’t necessarily identify as a woman or a man, but whose work echoes mine, as if we were really speaking to each other. You also have amazing male artists that have done incredible works where a woman’s character is put forward. It is ambiguous. The fight is not over, but one has to be conscious. So it’s an answer that is not an answer, sorry.
Ten or 15 years ago I was interviewed and I said that I never introduce myself as a woman artist. But then, of course, I am a woman artist and, like I said, in your everyday life in Lebanon, you deal with the issue of being a woman every minute of your day. Not necessarily in an oppressive way, but you are constantly aware of certain things. A few days ago, I was in a restaurant with a male friend, and the waiter asked him how he liked the food but did not ask me. So I said, ‘It is great, thank you. If you care about my opinion.’ I am talking about the daily things.
I would not like my work to be reduced to these ‘labels.’ I want my work to speak to everybody. I was influenced by artists and filmmakers who were from China and Thailand, for instance. And many artists who work within different political contexts have a reflection that has great resonance with mine. Like artists in China, Cambodia, Argentina or Brazil, who deal with the notion of representation, history and use of documents. As much as I am happy to be in conversation with my peer artists here in Lebanon, I feel like it is also important to be in conversation with artists from other parts of the world. And frankly, speaking of the locality and the context, at some point with these shows about Lebanon, the region, the Middle East, Islamic art, all these labels that are harmful sometimes, you feel that their agenda is not always well intentioned or genuine.
Things that were happening ten to 15 years ago, when people were deeply interested and did serious research, are not to be put at the same level as other ways of doing things, where people are doing ‘art tourism’ or art shopping. And, I must admit, I have sometimes accepted taking part in these exhibitions with regret or for various reasons, but we should not put everything in the same basket. So you could have an extraordinary ‘women’s show’ that comes out of Lebanon and that could be subtle in its articulation. Or a basket where they’d put everything that fits the fashion of the time…
So in a strange and contradictory way, I would say that being a woman today in the Arab world is certainly more difficult, and the fight over legal matters for equality is certainly harder than being in Norway, Sweden or France, but being a woman artist is not necessarily more difficult, because on the international platform it hasn’t reached equality.
Also, on the local aspect, I would say it is not more difficult to be a woman artist, simply because art is not regarded as a profession that is serious. So, basically, if you are a man and you want to become an artist it is hard, you are under pressure. But because it is not considered as a serious profession, or one that has an obvious economic outcome, it is fine if women do it. They can have fun in what is often understood as a ‘decorative’ activity. This is the worst way to think about art. So you will not be looked at as someone on the margin if you are a woman artist. It is fine to be a woman artist, but it is not necessarily for good reasons. You know what I mean?
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #42